A Cave, Canyon, and Churches in the Rain

I missed the nightlights at Colchis fountain but not the opportunity to stand on the wet stones in the roundabout and watch the water shoot up between the golden animals: large horses on top surrounded by animals in tiers, inspired by jewelry found in a nearby archaeological site from the Iron Age; which at this hour almost looked bronze as only their chests were reflecting the early morning cloudy grey light.

A large clock with a Pravoslavny Kostel (Slovak for Orthodox Church) behind it caught my attention, as did the McDonald’s drive-thru mural and its patio dining as I walked up the stairs towards closed doors and a view of the orange glow under the pine trees on the other side of the multi-spouted fountain. From here, I would drive up to Gelati Monastery through snow falling lightly on this historical church from the 12th century, a period which would also consist of the invention of checkers, the composition of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Shota Rustaveli, windmills begin to replace the power of a horse (max 15 horsepower), and amidst the falling and rising empires consumed with death would be the collapse of the Anasazi culture at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Gelati Monastery

There’s a feeling you get when at the top of a mountain and perhaps this ~3,000ft high hill offers that after so many years of living at sea level or the uniform sky that leaves the trees blurry and brings the buildings into focus in their wet grass habitat that seems to be at the same upkeep level as the history it supports… if only my foundation had been so strongly set in stone. I’m grateful that as an adult I have the choice to change the way situations are handled that were conflicts in my childhood.

Once inside, I look for signs of the academy that once was but am left to search for meaning in the well-preserved murals, that seem to have been washed with time, that portray mostly men and crosses in a rich maroon color as they hold books and work together to stress a theme of a story told across many religions and continents with a moral that was the norm then and is still being misguided by zealots today that mistake ‘Love thy neighbor’ for ‘Kill those who don’t support your point of view.’

Churches, concerts, and courts are meant for the masses, so having this multi-room space to myself, with just the snow falling outside, was peaceful, considering the dead guys painted on the walls it’s still a nice place for quiet contemplation of what the past was, how the present is, and where the future will be — mine being to drive back down the hill, past the construction trucks, and a conversation with Caleb until the stairs for Bagrati Cathedral where I circle around the area with the car and park in time to see a woman throw bone knuckles from her balcony to the dogs that are barking at cars in the rain.

Bagrati Cathedral

Up the “city” steps, past the “hiking trail” steps, continue by the tree that grew another tree (both on top of a rock), to the triangular intersection with a restaurant across the way and the church, that sits along the Silk Road Corridor, is to the right. It was built in the 11th century and had its marble columns stolen some 650 years later that were returned in 1770. The temple is a cross-domed building: the dome is supported by four pillars with a singular reinforcement built into the facade — a technological innovation of the period.

This church was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and got a complete renovation that was finished in 2012 that caused it to be delisted in 2017 because the repairs were too modern to maintain the authenticity and structural integrity of the historical theme. I think it’s great to remake buildings like their predecessors but I also enjoy seeing traditional and modern methods brought together to preserve what is left of the original structure and introduce something new to bring a piece of history through to the next millennium.

The church was roofed with copper and covered in a special azure and emerald patina to symbolize heaven and the splendor of Creation, respectively. Parts of the facade look pieced together, like a child learning how to do their first jigsaw puzzle and just forcing the pieces to match, some of which were broken to begin with but the original stones that were once scattered (of the ones found) have been put back in their proper location allowing researchers, over the years of reconstruction, to confirm the number of windows and thickness of walls for a more accurate rebuild.

I withhold entry to the interior to look out across the city below, mostly tan and grey buildings mingled with some trees, and what appears to be a giant Georgian flag upon first glance but is actually two buildings that are mostly white with large red lines that may be in the shape of initials. To my left, in the yard, are two dogs who are kindly guarding the rock piles, one in the shape of a well or deep fire pit. I leave them to make my way inside as the clouds begin to part on the horizon to let in some sunlight.

The modern metal touch is noticeable on the left corner of the church upon entering the gates and once in the door, I notice some stone pillars that are part metal too. This place of worship has its fill of saints’ portraits but what it lacks in lit or melted candles it makes up for in bones, possibly perceived to be those of the holy disciples that are portrayed near them; the old femurs, humeri, and crania, some smoothed with age and some covered in pearls and lace.

How odd, to me, to find a receipt, half-burned, for the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz in the sand-filled candle pot… some 2,400 km away, to include a ferry from Kerch, Crimea. I’ve heard of burning things as a way of closure or destroying evidence, so I hope whatever the reason for this sacrifice by fire that the goal was met and the person or people left in a better state of mind. Perhaps I’m just overthinking it and the paper fell out while they were trying to pray, move all the candle ends to the other side, or take a picture.

Next up is the glass floor, about the size of an American living room, that’s protecting the structures below; part of which looks like the sun’s rays without the sun. I find the near and far, the small and large, the religious and secular details in this cathedral fascinating, and am grateful for the time and space to explore, appreciate, and photograph for future reference the time I visited a delisted site which carries a different feeling from reading a book that was once banned. How much knowledge we can never know, but how much more are we never allowed to know that we don’t know about?

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I knocked next door to a hostel but both remained unanswered. I noticed the activity of shoppers downstairs from where I parked and found the Georgian pay-to-potty: three squatty-potties with no doors and a fold of tissue paper for 0.30 tetri. What I didn’t think to ask the woman at the window is which side I should use so I very well might’ve used the men’s side, which I’ve done on purpose elsewhere to avoid a longer wait. Either way, there wasn’t an awkward moment that would make for a more interesting story.

Kutaisi Botanical Garden

Next on my itinerary, the Kutaisi Botanical Garden, founded in the 19th century and known for its Cathedral in a Tree also has some 700 species of greenery to catch the eye, a lot of the plants collected from other gardens of Georgia and Russia. I found street parking and some other cars made use of the dirt by the T-intersection. Usually, I enter a large garden with the intent to wander until I run out of the allotted time or gauge that I’ve seen enough to come back for the rest and preserve some foot mileage, but here I hoped that I was getting lost in the right direction to find the reason I chose this park from the others.

Mini lions in the Phoenix’s repose greet me at the entrance. There is a courtyard with benches and art of stone, mesh, and a multi-colored tree due to peeling bark and growing moss. The paths are wide and bricked, the trees gangly and plenty, and the flowers wet and colorful. The tree is marked with the grapevine cross, familiar in Georgia to the Orthodox church with its own history dating back to the 4th century, and the original preserved at Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.

The sealed skylight and the door, with a unique frame, help protect the hanging images, bible, and teacup for holding used matches (there’s a sand-filled shelf outside for burning candles) from the weather. I could probably fit three of me in the hollowed trunk but I seem to be the only person in the park. I feel a sense of giddiness having accomplished a mini-goal in the midst of the adventure taking place in this park, in this new-to-me country, on a day in my life that could’ve just been ordinary and quickly forgotten in the mix but now gets special neurons in my memory network.

I love the covered curved benches found around the city as they seem to give off a warmer and more inviting feeling for sharing and conversation amongst family, friends, and strangers. My next acquaintance will be a fluffy grizzly bear cub of a dog. I don’t think he works here but he greets me at the pay window of the Sataplia Strict Nature Reserve where I’ve driven for a cave tour, even if I have to wait 25 minutes for it to start, while pacing in the parking lot and around the gate to read the visitor’s rules, such as “no fast movements during limited visibility conditions.”

footprint room at Sataplia

The cave was discovered in 1925 and just ten years later some 350+ hectares of surrounding Colchic (conifer and broadleaf tree ecoregion) temperate rainforest was preserved to help save the endemic, migratory, and endangered species: brown bear, jackal, lynx, roe deer, Dalmatian pelican, pygmy cormorant, ferruginous duck, strawberry tree, and Phillyrea latifolia (green olive tree) to name a few.  

museum at Sataplia

The path is lined with little bricks of history starting at 2,000 million years ago — starting with bacteria to dinosaurs and then 1 million years ago and jumping to Homosapiens. There are less than ten people on the tour. Our first stop is the dinosaur footprint room where a staff member is waiting to let us in. There’s a large platform over some rocky terrain that has evidence of some Jurassic era dinosaurs, mostly of a smaller species. This ancient history is so well preserved and I wish we could cause less change to the ecosystem for all the flora and fauna, even though death is part of the circle of life.

I feel like Dorothy in Oz as I follow the grey-bricked road past the trees that still have leaves to the ones that have dropped their bright reddish-brown ones on the ground. There’s green moss on rocks and white moss on tree trunks. We pass the museum and a closed two-story cafe that I could live in but what awaits me inside the cave will leave me enthralled and being passed by those who don’t care to capture any of this wonder on an SD card because perhaps they have photographic memories.

I try to capture it all, from left to right, zooming in and out. This cave comes with a River Oghaskura that may sustain mollusks, crawfish, and spiders nearby. It takes a 12-meters wide petrified heart to capture the rest of the audience and entice them to touch the stalagmite that’s currently competing in a wet t-shirt contest, which perhaps protects this non-beating giant from all the oils and bacterias of strangers; one of which will offer his flashlight so that I may get some better pictures.

cave spider

We only seemed to explore half the cave and come back out the way we went in (when the map shows two entrances, one probably for spelunking scientists). My camera was foggy in the 14*C cave and when it finally seemed to adjust the tour was over… too short as always. I looked into renting out a cave for a day and was surprised by how many were for sale and saddened by how many had modern amenities that completely take away from the cave appeal. Perhaps that’s the difference between wet and dry and tourist money.

Our guide now leaves us to explore the rest of the park on our own, but the glass bridge with a panoramic view is closed due to weather. The museum is centered around an animatronic T-rex and has large descriptions, with images, of the region’s geology, the forest’s plants, and animals, past and present, that cover the walls around the room. The trail is short, the trees are tall, and there’s a sanded-wood playscape beside it all.

This country’s long history brings up stories told in many cultures — evidence of a civilization that just disappeared, abandoned cities that once hosted the rush for a natural resource, the remnants of towns left destroyed by war — and Georgia has picked up those pieces, put them together, and continued on in the business of life. The outside might look forgotten but the inside is still churning with vitality, just as the laundry is still hung to dry in wet weather, and the cows, pigs, and chickens are left to fatten themselves.

I’m seeing these things as I pass through Tskaltubo on my way to Prometheus Cave Natural Monument where I meet another dog, though this one looks like a mutt waiting on his human to get out of the car. I pay the tour fee and am told there will be a wait, so I wander off into the museum to read about Jumber Jishkariani who discovered the cave in 1984 and the surrounding flora, fauna, and archaeology. I’m reading about the different cave types: solutional, lava tube, sea, glacier, talus, tectonic, and suffusion sinkholes; when I notice the sudden silence and run out of the visitor center.

Prometheus Cave

The tour guide is just approaching the steps after having given an introduction I’m sure. I have no problem taking my place in front as we descend the 50 or so stairs down to the entrance but trying to keep at the pace of others and take pictures was more difficult so when a couple, frustrated, asked if they could get ahead of me I let all nine speed-walkers go ahead with the guide as I realized I wouldn’t be left in the dark and could savor the cave to myself for a while.

There’s a mix of manmade and nature’s art and I’m grateful to have just a moment to appreciate their details and imagine their stories. I prefer people leaving murals of truth and love then selfishly signing nature in a need to feel important. With art that’s easier to share — should the owners of each sculpture, painting, or book be allowed to leave their mark of temporary passing or just respect the piece as is and leave it for the next owner, whether that’s a person, a community, or a country.

It’s amazing that “doing the same thing repetitively and expecting different results” is attributed to insanity and yet nature grows trees of varying heights in the same forest and drips water on the floor at the same rate in different caves and though the results might be similar, just as all people are the same inherently but somewhat different, there’s a sense of magic in the process that those little tweaks in mountains and rivers stand out in our eyes and therefore our minds to deliver the gift of living in a high that only nature can give.

Knowing how long these formations take to grow I stare in awe at the younglings and though I want to be here I don’t like knowing I’m part of the reason for the paved concrete path with walls and the destruction it has caused to be installed with the surfaces being smoothed to arm’s reach. Some things are better left untouched and unseen if it means they can continue their productive lifecycle without human invasion. There’s so much to learn that’s already accessible without having to make it impossible for species and ecosystems to perform the way they were intended to.

The bigger the room, the more variety of colored light there is to change your perspective based on the angle of your view… and I’ve heard red is less disruptive than white. There’s a river flowing through and though I want to reach out and touch it I think of the impact, something I’ve never thought about with any other body of water, considering the stories from dive boats to naval ships, from what happens onboard to what “falls” off. The rest of the group is out at the other end of the tunnel, most of them smoking, and the guide waited for me.

Three from the group took off walking, in such a hurry, to make the bus pull over and pick them up on the way back to the visitor center because they didn’t know there was a hill. The cave was magnificent and I would definitely go again to spend another 45 minutes amongst the wonders to be found underground. As much traveling as I have done, more than some and less than others, I should be better about carrying change; even if most of the places I go take card, use larger bills, or have plenty of coins, I blame the currency exchange for making me carry around cash like I’m paying rent, not trying to negotiate the cost of candy (not enough change) or a tour (too much change).

way to Kaghu waterfall with Dima

I drove to the parking lot of Martvili Canyon and got hassled into a 30 lari tour (that I paid 40 for because Dima didn’t have change) because of the no-parking signs and not knowing where to pay — it’s free if you can find it. We start off driving down a pot-holed road with parts of it washed out. He helps me navigate so the car keeps the rocks and river under the wheels and not splashing in my windows after sliding downhill sideways. If some hadn’t said no before this sunset adventure began, I’m sure getting out of the car to walk across a bridge over a beautiful river towards a picnic area might’ve made them turn around.

I’m glad I didn’t. I took a chance on a local and it paid off, again. He took me where the tourists don’t go often and we got to take some awkward selfies by the Kaghu waterfall so he has proof of how he spent his Saturday evening. I park us behind a sign on a curve in the road and across the street is Balda Canyon Natural Monument. The sky is as blue and cloudy as the water is clear and inviting. It’s difficult to get pictures at the dam (named Amusement Park on Google Maps and translates to “the canyon is crowded”) because Dima grabbed onto me “to keep from fall” as he had just tripped.

He didn’t smell as nice as he was which made me all the more ready to move from moss-covered rocks to the next stop on this guided excursion instead of trying to get the proper angle to see the hole in the rock under the bridge due to water flow. We finish the tour by driving back to Martvili Canyon, past the boat ramp, and up another bumpy road to enjoy the view. He invites me for a ride on the water tomorrow after asking if I had a lover and kids (said a little one is good) and if there is room for two in the car or hotel room. This is where I kindly tell him no but let him think I’ll be back for my change and another adventure tomorrow.

I drove into Martvili as the clouds turned shades of orange and pink and the radio played Tu Es Foutu by In-Grid (English version: You Promised Me) a tune I first remember hearing in Phoenix, AZ. I stopped at the first hotel I saw (and just as quickly left because it was 100 lari) but Gocha wants me to come back so he can show me around. I drove to another place, but there is no one in the lobby and the room is the same price so I found Hotel Garda (aka Canyon Hotel on Booking.com) through their restaurant bar for 50 lari, via the large sign outside that simply said HOTEL.

restaurant

This kind of signage made finding dinner easy too as on the side of a glass building was written RESTAURANT and down the wooden stairs to the left, I found Teliani Valley (aka Katkha) restaurant. After the hotel, I had walked to the market where I was able to sneak two photos (as stores don’t allow it here) while buying some chocolate-covered jammy dodgers inspired by the mouse’s boat in the animated film Flushed Away that Caleb and I find diverting.

Dinner will be badrijani nigvzit (eggplant and peppers covered with walnut paste) again. It’s a smaller serving than the others but spicier. At some point in the day, I hit a cow with my side mirror when the honking wasn’t working and it was just enough to get between bovine and pole. I would spend over two hours on the phone with Caleb throughout the day and about 16 minutes talking with Dad and Caroline on their trip in Winslow, AZ while I brought my bag up to the room, changed into PJ pants, and folded the blanket three times to lay under me to not fill the lumpiness in the mattress.

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Shadows, Sunrise, Stalin, Snow

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Awake and surrounded by darkness, I turn on the TV to watch a minute of a mustachioed man run a marathon, like an Indian version of Forrest Gump, to let my eyes adjust before walking into the dining area for fresh coffee with my cookies I saved from last night. I was waiting for the sun to touch the horizon so I could set off on foot and explore the area a bit, though I would have waited to drive as well because in the absence of light so much of the sights are obscured.

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Okona Day Church

I don’t remember if I told the hotel clerk where I was going but when he saw me step outside the front door he quickly joined me and pointed left. I thanked him as I crossed the street and admired the ditches between the sidewalk and the road — to drain the rain, keep cars from sliding into shops in the snow, and a convenient place to put potted plants if there isn’t a version of a planked driveway there. There’s an old prison-bank-museum-looking building and the only thing I can read on the sign is USAID which has given $1.8 billion since 1992, perhaps to help strip the doors, paint, and windows from this leftover frame to help another project.

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sunrise over Gori, Georgia

Casting light from under evergreens and onto the street is a small park with a monument dedicated to Nikoloz Baratashvili, which in the shadows gives the impression that he has two faces. He wrote about Georgia asking for help from the Russian Empire, a situation that would last over 100 years until 1918. He would use what little he was able to write to introduce Romanticism into Georgian Nationalism, not when he died in 1845 in Azerbaijan but starting in 1861 when he was finally published and idolized.

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Memorial of Georgian War Heroes below Gori Fortress

 

Georgia would again claim independence, this time from the Soviet Union in 1991, after a rule of 70 years. In the five day war of 2008, Georgia lost 170 soldiers and 224 civilians, left over 20,000 people displaced, and 20% of their land occupied with Russians in violation of the ceasefire. This is also the first time that a cyberattack of news websites and military hostilities took place at the same time. People have pointed fingers to blame everyone but themselves for the atrocities that humanity so badly craves.

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Virgin Mary Temple

I suppose I’ve never seen myself as racist, religious, or reactionary and perhaps that’s because I’ve not believed in something so strongly that I would be willing to kill people for it (though I’m sure some of my habits endanger their daily livelihoods). I know I’m going off-track, but countless countries/territories have killed their own people to make a point, which is why the American Constitution forbids states from seceding from the Union but they may create more states within themselves with the consent of Congress.

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Virgin Mary Temple

Some people travel for work (hotels, airport lounges, business meetings, and upscale restaurants), some for pleasure (resorts, Instagram worthy beaches, yachts), some for escape (from the 9-5, the abuse from a loved one, or as a way to find a new life interest), and for some, there’s a passion to find more — history, knowledge, understanding, empathy, beauty, and love — and to share that with the world you encompass. I know there are many more reasons why people cross borders and try to redraw them to international acceptance but lines in the sand are arbitrary and used to divide people when we should be coming together and growing more positively.

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Virgin Mary Temple

Anyhow, I continue past the tall and skinny pine trees as the sky begins to change colors and see the Okona Day Church, walk on the cobbled streets past three iPhone stores, and read some graffiti, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here!” Some of the homes look like the façade of a Western main street with modern brick and stone upgrades. I reach the entrance path to the Gori Fortress and am met with a guard dog who is easily tamed and maintains its distance while I tell him about the amazing sunrise he’s about to miss.

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I always wondered if my dogs appreciated the broad visual newness I gave them, but being inept in vision as they got older definitely didn’t help, though they always loved the sounds, textures, and smells of a place in a way I couldn’t… or didn’t want to. The wind picks up as I move away from the protective shell of shops and homes and up the hill to take a picture of the fort and then the sunrise, then turn and repeat using the stairs to my advantage until they turn me behind a wall and block the view of the sky that resembles a ripped blanket on fire.

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There’s a fenced-off hole in the ground when I reach the top and I turn my back to the sun peeking over the mountain and the ferocious wind to get closer to the edge for another look. On the other side of the Mktvari River is the St. George’s Church which offers a steep hike, whether on foot or via car, to this picturesque place on the top of the shorter peak in the mountain range. I should’ve taken the time to walk around the perimeter of the fort built by the 13th century and looked up how to get to the church built 500 years or so later, but I’m always leaving something to come back for.

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Gori Municipality Administration

I can barely make out a badge on his shoulder as the rest of his body is covered by a green military blanket while he lies on a cot. Under his youthful face looks like a pillow my dad could sleep on, one stuffed to the max with origami, where the kid’s head is attempting to make a dent to escape the cold. His guard shack is half wood and half glass and there are a thick pair of gloves next to a ceramic cup. I slowly step away as not to disturb him while also making sure I don’t trip over something that destroys me.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

I decide to pet the dog that approaches as I’m leaving the fort but our meeting is short as his two friends catch up and they run off, squeezing under a fence and probably looking for breakfast. This draws my attention to a little green bin surrounded by cigarette butts with the sticker “Ultras Against Racism” on it. Ultras are extreme sports fans that use banners and flares in stadiums and also like using their influence to support their political views. I also learned that the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, was started as a charity to push Sharia Law. The year of the Arab Spring legalized the group but it was later considered to be a terrorist organization by many countries.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

At the end of the path is a house that appears to be abandoned, but many of the lived-in ones give that impression from the outside. On the wall is written a bunch of expletives so, of course, I must go and walk down the stairs built into the sidewalk past the bottles and broken doors. I probably would’ve entered the gate at the bottom had it not been locked. I’m quite sure someone knew I was coming and helped keep me from an international incident due to trespassing and not being able to explain why I felt important enough to go on private property.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

Next on the morning’s agenda is to see the Memorial of Georgian Warrior Heroes, but first I must pass by a small sacrifice of books and what appears to be a steering wheel cover but is actually a much longer hose that has been set on its cardboard pyre for its partial burning before being left charred and covered in ash. Perhaps this is some foretelling of what these men have seen, and if so, I’m grateful they managed so I hopefully don’t see that violence so close in my lifetime, though others are still forced to struggle with that reality while trying to find a place to call home.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

The statues are massive as each one sits on a stone in a large circle, all broken in their own way — stab wounds, missing limbs, and decapitation. I take them in one-by-one and then as a whole to acknowledge the solemnness of this historical marker. I’ve spent the morning in my sole company so the man on his morning walking run quickly grabs me (not literally) out of the mood by tossing a piece of bread to a dog who is now taking the liberty of pooping in the middle of a large, but luckily clear, intersection.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

I’m drawn into the courtyard of the Virgin Mary Temple and after a walk around the perimeter make my way through the colorful entrance, with a mosaic above the door, into a more highly painted scene, some of which is still in progress — and all using a majority of baby blue, brick red, and honey orange to tell the story of Jesus. I’m then frozen as one voice is joined by another by sounds I’ve only heard recorded, Gregorian chants, that speak to my soul as the words aren’t for me to interpret but to feel, and it’s magical. I would be drawn to any meeting place to leave with this sense of wellbeing instead of the fear and guilt I grew up with attending services as a child.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

I’m walking on thin ice (meaning in a precarious or risky situation; also referring to a song by Pink Floyd released in 1979, episode 57 of MacGyver aired in 1988, and a documentary that was premiered on Earth Day 2012) back to the car. I’m sitting at a red light and watching the countdown timer for the left green arrow and wondering how many accidents that helps prevent by providing the driver a more accurate measure of how much time is left to get through the intersection. Perhaps it’s just the courteousness of the driving population in general that sets the standards for road manners regardless of local regulations.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

Approaching Uplistsikhe Cave Town and there are friendly roadside horses and rambunctious dogs that can’t control their excitement but to bark and chase the car. I’m nervous to get out for fear they will scratch my camera or me if they’re the jumping kind but they seem to know that they’re not allowed inside the gate, neither is decorating, destroying, or drinking. Beware of the falling rocks and people and pay 20 more lari for a guide service if you need an interpreter.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

The path to the “lord’s fortress” historical-architectural museum-reserve starts to the right and looks like the rock has been worn down by wagon wheels for more than two millennia. This place was re-established in 1979 after six centuries of abandonment, but no longer as a hub for religious, political, and commercial activities although a church and basilica are still present. I take the tunnel to get inside, and once up the 80 plus stairs, I see the one building that’s not like the rest of the surrounding structure, a difference which can clearly be seen from the road as well.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

The view is awe-inspiring as I imagine the wealth of possibilities spread out in the river, trees, plains, and mountains beyond. I picture the people here busy learning how their world works via creating language, making food, studying religion, and surviving attacks as other cultures and empires clash for control of the region. As I climb higher, the scene gets more expansive and the wind more bitter. I take refuge in each room between the more virulent bursts of unseen air to see the burnt stone with modern names carved in and concrete supporting this elderly structure.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

I could live here with the built-in shelves and stoves, but would definitely want a Dutch door installed to block the wind but keep the sun coming in. There are faint greens and blues with bright rusts and whites, either growing bacteria or mineral deposits, that have agreed to this living arrangement minus the need to adjust for the weather as it meets their requirements perfectly. There’s also a touch of candle wax from the multitudes of visitors that may be trying to connect with their ancestors or praying that their life maintains its friendly warmth and isn’t soon left to be cold year-round.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

There are stairs, paths, and numbered signs but I’m not concerned with marking them all off my list of things seen here as I’m more focused on the varying heights of arches, random rocks in the sand, and how the landscape changes in the summer. I wish I’d been given more time to talk with my grandparents about less trivial matters but they each had a drama of their own and none of them contained the secret to the past that I would be looking for here. I would love to hear or comprehend the simplicities and such difficulties that were required for daily survival in such a harsh environment as the past.

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The church door was installed behind a piece of rock that juts out from its arch, so it wears a simple red scarf to make sure it stands out more. Inside is the austerity of decoration and the deterioration of architecture; the faces are darker and the candles unlit. Back outside is a cute Western Rock Nuthatch, a small passerine bird, found in 19 countries from Slovenia to Iran. The birds use rock crevices as homes and as a place to wedge seeds and snails to assault them with their beaks until they break.

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I pass by the wine cellar, number 11 on the map, the most northerly structure here, and definitely modern. I don’t proceed closer due to the little wire wrapped lock to keep the gate closed and the short stone wall I could step over. I don’t know if there are visiting hours or if it’s closed for another reason. Over the rust-colored bridge and the flat rock, past the other entrance with twice as many stairs, and I’m once again on the outside of this piece of history (as time capsules are smaller and interesting in their own right).

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Stalin Museum

All it took was me lifting my camera in the museum to lose that privilege. It was a small hall with a few items pertaining to the caves and a film that talked about the role the Silk Road aka the Transcaucasian Trade-Transit Trunk played in forming the region as it changed due to the politics, economics, religion, and military control of the current empire until the route’s decline in the 15th century when sea transport became a more popular way to deliver Chinese silk to the west.

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Stalin Museum

Religion also played a role as Christian monks and missionaries built temples within fortifications as a place for those traveling in the North Caucasus to change horses, spend the night safely, and hire a guide for the next part of their journey. The area and route would see Arab control bring Islam, Pagan worship from the Greco-Roman pantheon, and the spread of Buddhism from China. Remnants of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Daoism structures also remain as a reminder of how trade is more than just an exchange of goods, but of belief systems, languages, and lifestyles.

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Stalin Museum

Sharing my path with nature is something I grew up with and there are parts of childhood, no matter how disturbing the background, that brings comfort as an adult — this is one of them. I spent time riding a bike or running through the woods, looking out for horses, goats, cows, turkeys, and sheep (not all owned by us) along with all the dogs we had through the years. I was a birdwatcher before I knew it was a professional hobby and used to spend part of my day watching clouds go by, plants growing at their pace, and lying quiet so I could hear bugs dance and sing undisturbed.

This memory makes watching the Eurasian magpies fly, the hooded crows eat, and the Georgian mountain cows walk along a bridge all the more memorable as I wish I had more time for moments like this. I look forward to Caleb retiring, even if just for a year, so we can both spend days enjoying the simplicity of life that technology has afforded us. This thought process makes me want to go back to dirt roads and aluminum roofing for slower traffic and a lullaby on rainy nights. I appreciated what I had as a kid and I still do because life has brought me love and lessons and left me longing for more, but when I’m traveling with just the bag on my back, I feel I have all I need.

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Stalin Museum

I drive back to Gori and abruptly pull over to get a piece of bread the size of my steering wheel, like a large fluffy pizza crust, after seeing it in the baker’s window. I park the car in front of the municipality administration building to walk along Stalin Avenue to the museum also dedicated to the former dictator. Outside is a replica of Stalin’s house rebuilt under a yellow stone tent with white columns and an orange and yellow stained-glass roof — a star surrounded by squares. The larger building looks like it holds a university, but walking inside feels like being a wealthy individual greeted by a collonade, marble stairs, and a chandelier.

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Stalin Museum

I make my way merrily to the top of the stairs and take in the royal view of a red carpet, purple light, and more marble. The windows have colored glass and metal shutters cut into a pattern to add depth and delicate design to the interior. I’m about to waltz through this museum when the upstairs doorkeeper kindly lets me know I’m not gaining more access until I go downstairs and pay my 15 lari. I’m back in three minutes with my little slip of blue paper with the price and image of the museum on it in the corner under half a circular stamp.

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Stalin Museum

Room one is mostly pictures of people who helped the varying ages of Stalin, a tinier replica of his house, a woven image of him, and documents such as “The Morning”, a poem by J. Dzhugashvili in a 1916 edition of “Deda ena”, a book by J. Gogebashvili for learning the alphabet and elementary reading. The second room has a book by Stalin, “Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR”, 1952, and a table from the conference room in the Kremlin. The next room is all military based photos of soldiers, maps, guns, smoke, and Stalin in uniform.

The exhibit hall contains gifts from the countries who loved him around the world — a lamp with a tank commemorating 9 May 1945, a carpet of Stalin and an officer from Baku, Azerbaijan, and a grain of rice from India with a microscopic message on it. There’s a small corner room that gives me the feeling of being in a giant sarcophagus mausoleum with a head bust on a pillow and black walls. Another hall for more books and busts and cases filled with a metal vase from Germany, a colored sand portrait from Ukraine, red Dutch clogs, and plenty of pieces from Georgia and China.

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I stop for a powdered donut on the way back to the car and it tastes like a fluffed hamburger bun. I will pass three soccer fields (only green in town in the winter), two sleeping dogs (taking permanent naps), and some fat chickens as I drive north. I realize that the police always ride with their lights on (if not it’s a speed trap). I also pass wind turbines, fruit stands, and trucks with carcasses hung up for roadside shopping. I notice snow starting to fall and appreciate the quality of the roads as I realize I get to drive through the inspiration for Winter Wonderland minus the crowds and flashing lights.

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The roads are surprisingly clear for the amount of snow on the trees and options to stop are limited — railing, tree line, rock face, ditch, and concrete barriers. I’m grateful as I pass a man up to his knees in the snow that I didn’t try to pull over and risk getting stuck as the fog starts to settle on the street. A car passes a semi-truck going uphill around a turn forcing me to hit my brakes or them head-on going downhill on a wet road. I’m about 10 km away from my planned detour and I stop for juice. The first place wouldn’t give me the display, the second shop only had water and Pepsi, but the third store had cherry nectari, not Fanta.

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After passing a NATO Partnership Training and Education Center building I’m approaching what I think will be a tunnel, not arched and reinforced but simply cut from the rock. It turns out to be a small cave with two staircases and a fountain that perhaps works in another season. It seems I won’t be riding the famous cable cars of Chiatura today as I’ve found the ones used to transport coal and then my phone loses signal so I’m unable to search for the other one.

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Rain joins the fog and parts of the road are missing so I either have to go around or crawl over the damaged sections causing me to pay much more attention to a road than ever before. I still let cars and dump trucks in as I focused on the passing headlights, noticing most of them are dim or dirty and only one driver had their brights on. This inclement weather doesn’t slow them down and they always use a blinker. Here, the “children crossing” sign is more of a “children playing karate” sign. I’m happy to be back on the highway, this has to be a first, but there are so many missed picture opportunities of houses and buildings that the American system would condemn based on the under-construction appearance that the locals use to fit their needs.

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I was able to stop and see a statue though that looked like a soldier being protected by his guardian angel. On each side was a flag, the well known red and white one on the right and a half blue – half green with an orange cross on the left. Down the street, on a corner, stands the Katskhi Monastery. From the tattered sign, I’m able to gather that the church was built over 1,000 years ago, was burned and rebuilt twice, the roof of the dome is like a half-open umbrella, and that hundreds of books were rewritten here. I took a minute or five too long appreciating the outside to even get a peek at the inside. When the woman was getting picked up by her husband, he asked something and she looked back at me as the answer as I scurried through the gate so she could lock up.

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The low-air light on the dashboard comes on and I pull over to a gas station, most equipped with air, tires, fluids, and other car essentials like water, snacks, and coffee are to the drivers. The guy restarts the car in an attempt to reset the symbol. Then he holds the unlock button on the key fob until all the windows roll down. It’s a neat trick but it won’t be helping with the tires. On the second stop, I went up to a shop window and held my phone up for the five guys to read and one guy got up from the card game. He checked the tires and told me to circle the lot and said I was good to go.

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I wish I could’ve just trusted their judgment but I didn’t want to be left stranded somewhere so I went to a third gas station and this guy didn’t read Georgian. I didn’t feel like taking the time to get onto his wifi to change to Russian, so I continued on to get an actual third opinion from another guy who agreed with the first two. Then I had a guy inside the shop offer me his tour guide services. I thought he was trying to sell me food or a boat, so I’m sure that would have been an interesting experience.

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Katskhi Monastery

I had plans to see some places tonight in Kutaisi but with the tire issue, sprinkling rain, and still needing to find a room I decide the attractions can wait until morning. I knocked on a door, rattled a gate, and the third place was in ruins. I was on my way to another guest house and stopped at Hotel Rio because I saw the sign and parking for three, possibly six if I got blocked in. The two Russian girls walked me down the long hall to room 7 with a single bed and told me 40 for the night after they searched to make sure the translation was right. I thanked them and grabbed my bag from the car and what’s left of my bread, that’s now the size of my hand.

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The girls offered me tea and coffee and came down to my room to turn the heat on. I wish they could do the same in the bathroom, where the door seal keeps the cold air and water tightly within, so I’m hoping the hot water warms the freezing floor. As I wait for my room to warm up a bit so I can start to remove my coat and boots I look up at the heater that reads, “Don’t put your hand into the air outlet.” I trim my two chipped nails and get some semi-warm tea down the hall, in my socks, to drink while I talk with Caleb as he walks home with John and Justin, a coworker and his husband.

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Posted in Animals, Art, Family, Food, Forts, Government, History, Media, Music, People, Places, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Candles in Cathedrals to Convents

The great thing about exploring a city while staying at a hotel that serves breakfast hours after you’re ready to go is that you can come back and eat after some early morning exploring… even after waking up early and going back to sleep. Sunset comes with people scurrying around but as the sun begins to blink its eyes open and share that light with this portion of the planet the pace is slower and calm as I stop to take in the artificial yellow glow along the streets.

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I park a few minutes’ walk from the Trinity Cathedral even though there is parking outside the gate and I’m just able to catch the facade lit up before it went dark 48 seconds later. Religions went the opposite route in modesty when it came to building God’s house and I wouldn’t mind living in a tiny non-denominational version with all the best features — candlelight, stained-glass windows, and futon pews (from levee to leisure), but it’s the peasant’s job to live in a humble home while appreciating the creations of others without coveting their location.

The inside is marvelous and I take a photo-shooting spree before a hooded cleric kindly acknowledges that of course this religious structure has the same no-photo policy, as do all buildings without security that are full of gold, precious gems, and beautifully carved and probably rare wood types. I appreciate the few others milling about but wonder about the acoustics of the high ceilings with a melodious congregation during a worship service that I would feel lucky to witness.

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I notice a woman wrapping her legs in one of the scarves provided (that I thought was just for hair) but the no-pants symbol on the sign of what not to do in church makes more sense now. I’m not the only woman who doesn’t cover my leg gap but I do wear my hood where others reveal their mane. I understand why there would be tourist churches and ones for locals-only or timings to accommodate both in any country and religion so that the parishioners may pray without distraction.

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A man sees my camera and me pointing it at everything in sight as the sunlight is constantly changing the shadows of the church and its surroundings. He ushers me to a gate and lets me in saying, ”go, go” as he gestures towards the peacocks on a rooftop behind two trees. I take advantage of being on this side of the fence and get a closer look at the swans as well before thanking him as he talks to a friend before I’m offered another vantage point of the Trinity Cathedral.

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The sun has cleared the horizon and I attempt to find an outdoor museum via the roundabout that is Heroes Square and consists of up and down road options in six directions. I’m not good with numbers but I know I could’ve been there for hours and I hadn’t eaten yet, so I choose to save it for another time in the future. I park near the shops in a designated spot instead of navigating the street parking and walk to Guest House Zemeli for a fresh-made breakfast while I sip tea.

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I’m not sure if they were elder or juneberries but the crunch of their seeds went well with the soft bread covered in tabs of butter. The main dish was an egg served with a thin slice of ham, like prosciutto, a grain that looked like bulger wheat, and a soft, crumbly cheese brick that filled a quarter of the plate. To help digest all the food I would take an over two-kilometer walk roundtrip to the Rustaveli Theatre that I thought was a museum… either way they would both be closed at this hour.

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I would detour on the way back and return to First Republic Square (or Rose Revolution Square) where the Christmas market was now void of everyone but the few guards patrolling and me getting a chance to look at the 12-foot hollowed-out heart with gold shiny bits, to attract a line of selfie-takers, without the queue. I love people but I also love the absence of them. I’m grateful the planet still affords me the opportunity to appreciate both, in the countryside and in a city with a population of over 1.1 million residents.

I parked by the curb of a garage located on the other side of the walkway from the street and watched a car pull up for basic services — tires, fluids, etc. I arrived at an old-looking school building around the corner but this one with hammer and sickle on the doors –meaning Stalin’s house should be nearby. Nevermind that I was 20 minutes early, the arrow said open to the left, so I proceeded to give myself a tour of the well shed, with a hole big enough for two men to hug each other, then down the brittle metal circular staircase to a dark room (lit with my phone) to show a typographic machine with a rusted hurricane lantern shell dangling above.

I made it back up the stairs without needing a tetanus shot from my ankle being enveloped in a rusty bacteria-covered step and into a pink wallpapered room with portraits, books, a smaller typographic machine, and a bed that looked more like a storage trunk. I was about to see myself out when a guy came and turned on the lights and then went back inside to grab something — a summary of the museum in English, even though he would proceed to give me the tour in Russian and with hand gestures.

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I was told that the skinny (and wet) well is where the parts for the large typographic machine were put down so that they could be reassembled in the hidden basement once they were brought across a tunnel and up a dry well. With the lights on I’m able to make out 1893 on the machine and see the sturdy ladder that survived the explosion of the house and well in 1906 when the police found out and then filled the well with soil. The buildings were restored between 1922 and 1957 when the museum first opened.

The brochures and other anti-king literature were printed in Georgian, Armenian, and Russian though most of the tourists that visit are from China who come to pay their respects to another communist. As my guide shows me how the plate would be placed and then the wheel rotated to bring the paper up to wet ink I think about the effects too much efficiency has had on civilization and their expectations for immediate gratification. I would love to be typing this on an electric typewriter and getting to hear the bing as I returned to the left margin, but that’s because I have the luxury of time.

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The tour continues in the green wallpapered room with more portraits, stacks of books, and a roped-off bed. I’m impressed with a three-in-one image (that the pictures will better describe) and wonder about the model of the illegal printery in Baku, Azerbaijan that now has the Flame Towers (representing the coat of arms) since 2013 overlooking the largest city on the Caspian Sea. Though I’m really more concerned about the actual building and getting to see another part of this story told from another perspective.

To think I almost left without experiencing the second bedroom and not realizing there’s also a museum inside the school-looking building. My guide points to a group of faces and motions as to what their job was — assemble, print, distribute — and then gestured for me to take pictures of it all. We go into another room with a map that lights up tracing the spread of the movement before I’m shown to a special office where I’m guessing Stalin sat for phone calls and lunch. I’m then asked to pay the 5 lari museum entrance fee and shown the door with a smile.

I pull up to the fuel pump, most of them allowing you street access without a barrier, and this one is conveniently at an intersection corner. I was told in the rental lot to put diesel in the tank but was unaware I’d have two options to choose from. I can’t see the price on the sign and I’m not concerned about the cost difference but ensuring the guy who will be pumping for me grabs the proper handle. Once that’s established, I have to signal to him to give me a full tank costing 98 lari, about $35, as I’m not sure what to expect on the road ahead on my way to Tbilisi National Park.

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It took me half an hour to get outside the city limits leaving me with roadside ruins, leafless trees, and a few dogs to see for the next 20 minutes before I got to the no cars/no killing sign of the park with another sign letting me know that there’s video control. The road getting here wasn’t bad (as I had heard), a bit bumpy but clearly marked and scenic. As I continued, my path became more beautiful, foggy, eerie, frosty, and forbidding.

I love driving on curvy, cliffside roads but that’s because I’m used to the integrity of the pavement, whether it’s covered in rain, snow, or ripples (corrugated) and I’m usually not alone when the road turns into remnants with a long fall on one side and a ditch on the other or leaving the car bottomed out on the thin line of a lane that I’m maneuvering hoping that any moment I will have arrived at the Big Viewpoint Trail that I had planned on walking or cycling if bikes are available to rent.

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After the condition of the road like that, I’m hesitant to go any further and turn around as soon as it’s semi-safe to do so. There’s another road and I will take it down to what appears to be a large family of farmhouses and stop at the cemetery that looks like people were buried within the foundations of their old homes and then a park was built with fences on the concrete surrounding the headstones within. Some have picnic tables inside and there are others around but they don’t look like they’ve been sat on in years.

There’s a sign for the Mamkoda Loop for bicycles in 29km but I’m not sure if that was the road I was on or if it would be fit for my biking skill level if I were able to reach it. Back at the road where each habitat comes with its version of animal crossing to watch out for — cows in Texas, bears in Canada, camels in Oman, and dogs in Georgia. I get out of the car and make acquaintances with the skittish mutt before sharing some food, not by us taking turns licking or nibbling, but tossing it on the rocks and giving the pup space.

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I notice some ruins to my left and as I pull over to take a picture I’m greeted with the welcome sign of the national park which lets me know that it was established to maintain its treacherous forest appearance, complete with lynx that probably hunt the red deer, and all the bike trails are off-road so I’m fine stopping at whatever is in front of me now but there are no pedaling plans at this point.

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Below, across a dry river bed crossing, is an old fort and a road that goes two ways — one leads to a two-story structure and a car the size of a Honda Civic with a dozen men standing around it (clown car scenario or maybe their Uber is late) and the other direction that leads to mysterious trees and ruins up in the mountains. The men are in camouflage and coats and there’s a campfire ring with no smoke. Perhaps they’re inspecting the car as it might’ve been abandoned. Two of the men decide to wander over and check on me before heading back to the group.

I’m fine with seeing a bit of the rocks, sticks, moss, chipped paint, and dried fruit that the buildings have to offer as I climb their varied stairs to look through doors and windows at different angles before leaving the possibility of becoming an extra in the Russian film in-the-making where I end up bleeding for one reason or another. I used to be into more gory movie scenes until I realized they could be based on real-life situations and then that punishment lost its humor — like the blurred line between childhood and becoming an adult.

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Anyway, back on the road and driving west I stop at the Eastern Orthodox Church where there seems to be a photoshoot going on. I bypass the family but am quickly and kindly redirected to take my camera to the tourist site just minutes down the road. The arch where the group was focusing their pictures is ok but this is a more private religious venue and I can respect that. The Jvari Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Mtskheta is beautiful and was on my list of places to see.

I wasn’t expecting the wind and was a bit hungry when I stepped out of the car but the food stalls are empty so I’ll have to wait. This church was built in the 6th century around the octagonal base of a large wooden cross that was erected in the 300s, hence its other name Church of Holly Cross, and was built in the tetraconch style to contain four apses, semicircular domes, with one in each direction but maintaining a squarish exterior. There were other structures built as well but the Caucasus mountains and the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers grew without human influence until the 1920s.

As I prepare myself for the view of Mtskheta below I lift my thin waterproof hood over my ears and try to tuck my head into its protective shell. The wind still bites, it will every time, but regardless of who I’m with or how I’m dressed, I can’t seem to let a little bit of weather get between me and a new experience or sharing the unfamiliar through someone else’s view. I prefer the desert heat or the mountainous snow or the warm comfort of rain (when I’m not trying to take photos) but as much as I tell myself I don’t like the wind, I sure do find us hanging out whenever we get the chance.

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I’m able to squeeze in a few quick pics between the couples taking proof with their phones that they were here and that they too endured the journey that brought them to this mountaintop on a Thursday afternoon. Inside, fighting against the dark is sun, fire, and electricity. Though the arched ceiling might be sixty feet away what’s in arm’s reach feels simple, shiny, and small but all so very splendid to the soul. I’m falling in love with the story of this place (more the bringing people together today, not the faults of history from years gone by) when a piece of plastic blows by in the sky.

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This shows me that no place is perfect but when looked at, and cared for, through love I put on my rosy sunglasses that come with plenty of blind spots and I’m able to appreciate the roughness of a place or its people just a bit more so that they fit into my fairy tale childhood stories of how magical a place should be, but the cruel truth is that usually the dirtier and poorer the country, the sweeter the people, the tastier the food, and the more I feel at home, but that’s probably just my bias coming from a small town in Texas that’s not on the list of places named Podunk.

I leave one parking lot to use another and get a more distant view of the Jvari Monastery on my way to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Temple, the second-largest church building in Georgia after the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, which is also the third-tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world. With limited parking and such a crowd drawer down the street, it makes sense that the local merchants would set up shop on the cobbled path selling candy, clothes, coffee, and curios.

I stepped into Check-in Garden and asked the guy at the bar if they had khachapuri adjaruli, but did this by pointing to a picture that resembles the fishers (bread boat) under the sun (egg) and living on the sea (cheese) that in this case fills the baked treat perfectly but is more than I was prepared to eat. I’m guided downstairs where I’m given a glass of Alazani Valley red to sip while I look through the menu (which I always do, even after I know what I want) and explore the different seating areas available.

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With a satiated stomach and a pocket full of bread, I made my way past the scaffolding on the wall surrounding the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and take a lap around the outside to appreciate the stone barrier contrasting against the mountains and the clouds with evergreens and wooden benches spaced unevenly on the inside of the wall. Even the aged exterior entrance is drenched in details from the engraved wood and stone to the mural above the door.

The inside looks touched but clean, ancient but preserved, and has dark corners with plenty of natural light coming in to brighten the golden haloes on the walls and all the marbled grave markers on the floor. Young and old are awestruck at the design, deterioration, and dedication in preserving and continuing to use a part of history that struggled to keep peace in this setting while bloody battles were being fought to determine which religion, language, skin color, political belief, etc. would be in charge of the region for the next ruling period — from days to decades.

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There was a nice outhouse building, like one you’d find at a national park, but the door was locked. I was in luck as there was another WC sign, this one pointing under the roadway, like what a troll — ones living under bridges according to Three Billy Goats Gruff not the popular toy of the 90s created by Thomas Dam in 1959 or the popular internet ones that started in the 80s or the film that was released in 1986 — would use if they needed a free squat toilet.

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Up ahead is Saint Nino’s Makvlovani — which refers to the garden of spirituality under a blackberry bush with the blessing of the Mother of God — has stones in it that are curved on one side to go around a pipe and flat on the other. Makvlovani also refers to a smaller church (where a beheading and parties are painted within) that happens to be in front of the Samtavro Convent where I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I admired all the jewels and gold in their protective kissing cases and especially the one that had clothes appearing on a body in a glass casket.

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I know having a camera can seem like a distraction but I feel like it offers me two points of view. I snap an image of what I see in the moment and I’m given a second chance to see what else was captured while I was narrowly focused on a certain aspect of the scene. Trying to take pictures that help tell a story to encourage me to see more of the details that would otherwise go unnoticed or be forgotten in the minutiae of the experience as time goes on and the elements that were once bold blend together to create a blur of a memory that was once vivid.

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I would love to see that convent again and I suppose my option is to revisit the country for more perspective and research what I can and appreciate that some things or events are better left to be built in the memory and not ruined by flash cameras or grainy film. I unknowingly take the shorter route back but also wanted a different view. I’m glad I did as this brought me past a dog to share my leftover lunch bread with before watching two others play tug-o-war with an old towel.

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I pay for my parking spot as I debate whether to sleep here for the night or continue on as I had planned in my not-so-rigid itinerary. It’s about 70 minutes to Gori where there will be another guest house. I’m racing the sunset as I hit 90 km/h but the road is like walking here. You need to be constantly vigilant or a bump or giant pothole could change your day. I also had to pull over once or ten times to capture the clouds on the right side of the road as it’s not easy, or safe, to put the camera out the passenger window while I’m stretched across the car.

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Just as I’m leaving Grakali I see a roadblock twenty butts wide to include both shoulders. The two sheepherders were able to get their flock of some 200 sheep to give me enough room to pass. The sun is gone from the sky as I begin my nighttime search for a bed. My first stop is Guesthouse Svetlana. I feel like I’m trespassing as I walk up to the kitchen door and knock, loudly and twice, at the woman watching TV with her feet up just two meters from me. Another door opens and I’m invited in as a man is leaving.

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The hostess went into the room downstairs to “count the beds” and was told that they are full by the girls already in them. I didn’t want to sleep in a brothel but I didn’t want to be rude if there did happen to be a private room upstairs so I continued to wait while she scream-talked at someone for minutes before telling me to enjoy my journey… elsewhere.  I went to Tamar Guest House on the next street over but the gate was locked so I couldn’t even approach the door. At least that way I know their beds are full and don’t have to waste time sitting awkwardly alone at a dining table.

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I started to look for hotels instead as I wasn’t in the mood to drive door to door as it got later and I got concerned some places might have a curfew aka their bedtime. I got walked to room 18 at Royal House and agreed – one person for one night only 70 lari cash, about $25, unless I want to add breakfast. I’m given caramel candy which means coconut in Russian along with green jasmine tea that I chose and two scoops of coffee with milk that I was offered by the hotel clerk along with two chocolate-covered cookies with jam in the middle and three plain.

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I tried one of each cookie, drank most of both cups, and have an idea that will be my morning snack before backtracking to Uplistsikhe Cave Town. I thought I locked the door to my room, with the mini-fridge that takes up half the desk space, but when I came out of the toilet it was open. I relocked it and noticed the Dutch door/speakeasy peephole combo on the top quarter panel for when it’s not negative degrees out or maybe delivery while you’re in pajamas.

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The room next to me shares one of my heaters, the other is behind the bed, and though I can hear the men discussing plans for the night, the metal bracket blocks the view. Outside my bathroom window are towels hanging to dry under a cover with a ladder leaning against the wall. It’s warm enough in here to be in my undies, instead of the woolly and thermals I’ve been wearing, though the door is cold to the touch. I look forward to climbing under my greyscale floral blanket as the twinkly lights above the pool shine in through my sheer curtains.

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Markets, Museums, and Hotels

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I stayed in bed until the sun was awake enough to cast a rosy hue over the golden buildings, brown mountains, and blue sky in the distance. I was also hoping the heat rays would be a few meters closer to Earth this morning as I began to wander about. I noticed that shops wrap their goods left outside, more of a protection from weather than thieves, as deliveries can be left on the doorstep in the same manner.

The only other things moving this early are taxi drivers, hungry birds, a cat guarding a gate, a dog sleeping by a door, some fallen dead leaves, and employees going through auto-pilot on their way to work. Age is perception as well as upkeep, but there’s a weird feeling I get walking amongst buildings that have been here for decades and look like they’ve been abandoned twice as long, yet knowing soon people will be passing through with pets and plastics as part of their morning routine.

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Georgian Museum of Fine Arts

My first goal, besides staring at the sun coming down through the trees, is to find something to eat, as usual. I’m in luck as a window with a bakery sign appears to my right and I point at the giant croissant, full of nuts and crumb filling magic, and appreciate the distance between me and dessert breakfasts that only cost one lari as I would always find this pastry worth the walk.

The gate to the Garden of the First Republic of Georgia is open unlike much else as I explore the city on foot. I can just make out the year 1845 on the sign that appears burnt but also shares some of the plant life that calls this place home — Chittamwood, Horse Chestnut, Bleeding Heart, White Fir, and European beech. I see giant agave, a tree with ‘vino’ painted on it, a large private building with its bricks showing, and a dilapidated sidewalk that possibly could’ve been a local road.

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The neatest thing in the park wasn’t the sign listing 36 books of which only three had titles I could read — Jane Austen “Pride and Prejudice”, Herman Melville “Moby Dick”, and Galaktion Tabidze “Poetry” — or the pathway of benches and waste bins lined with skinny trees, but the stone drinking fountain with a spigot that protrudes past the guard so that it resembles a germ-covered straw.

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Bridge of Peace

I noticed a steeple behind a short wall and inside the elaborate gate and detailed door was a small church (no photos allowed) where the booth selling books, candles, and jewelry seemed to fill the corner. I reached my hand down into the middle of a bread basket, not sure if the pieces were edible or not, and that simple prosphora loaf of leavened bread cost me a dime, so I consumed it but not with the same joy as I do most carbs whether they melt in my mouth or need more coaxing from my teeth.

If you walk around long enough eventually a dog will join you if it’s the adventurous or hungry type. I found a cup on the ground and pulled the water bottle out of my coat pocket to share a drink with a medium-sized black dog with white ankle socks on in front and white toe socks on in the back. A majority of the dogs look well-fed and disease-free but as with all things in nature, there are anomalies.

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sulphur bath district

My hands are freezing because I didn’t have gloves on this side of The Atlantic to pack so they are taking turns in my armpits between photos of art, signs, cars, facades, and dogs playing in the street. I get to the sulphur baths of which I had planned to lay on a communal surface while having a layer of my skin scrubbed off but pass by the opportunity to look at water, bricks, tiles, locks, stairs, and bridges instead. I was embracing the cold weather and the drab rocks surrounding the waterfall that created dark greenery and ice.

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I was going to walk west but was pulled eastward across the Mtkvari River towards the giant bronze statue, erected in 1967, of King Vakhtang Gorgasali (meaning a wolf’s head) who is credited with founding Tbilisi and ruling the capital from the age of 15 until his death in 502, some 45 years later. The Metekhi Virgin Mary Assumption Church that is guarded by the king on his horse was destroyed by a Mongol invasion but was rebuilt in the 13th century and restored in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Metekhi Church

The church’s outer wall is built to meet the river and join the rocky mountain that the place of worship is built on, so that like many religious structures in this region it can be seen from a distance as a place of refuge from weather and photos as none are allowed inside. Next time I will bring a sketch pad so that I may attempt to share the simple grandeur that these buildings share on the inside while remaining typically Georgian and beautifully weathered on the outside.

I’m sure one of my parents at some point told me about the dangers of taking candy from a stranger but they never mentioned all the other goodies that a no-name person could present you with so I’ve been quite accepting in my three decades of life. Walking out of the church and having a man give me a prosphora with the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus would come as no surprise that I would hope the decoration made this loaf just a bit tastier. The bread giver quickly disappeared, perhaps to keep on gifting.

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Sculpture Tree of Life, Europe Square

I opt out of the aerial tramway in Europe Square but pay the lari to use their toilet. I mention this because I tried to use the casino across the street but they wanted me to pay and sign up to enter. I will have to add public facilities to my pre-trip research list though I did get lucky that a restaurant doing its opening routine let me in for free. There are men charging for pictures with blue-and-yellow macaws and a capuchin monkey (both from South America) along with a falcon and peacocks that have a more worldly habitat.

                                State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Instruments

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mini instruments

This will be my first time seeing a portion, really just a fragment, of the Berlin Wall given to the Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, on a visit to Germany in 2017 as a symbol of friendship. It’s impressive and powerful the history this almost 12-foot high slab of concrete can deliver while being over 3,000 km away from its origin. Spray painted on both sides is “ExpoNice” which refers to an annual conference dedicated to cybersecurity as firewalls replace some crumbling physical barriers.

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view from Narikala Fortress

There’s a solar-powered bench nearby with four USB outlets and a free wifi sign but the confused look on the guy’s face sitting there tells me something isn’t right — the panel is missing so his phone isn’t charging… this definitely wasn’t covered in Georgian 101. Some travelers have set itineraries whether for themselves or through a company but I quite enjoy the “I’m not lost anywhere I go because I’m still exploring somewhere/thing new” feeling, even if it is my second attempt towards the Narikala Fortress and National Botanical Garden without a map when I find my next detour.

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There’s a sign for the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Instruments, a place I hadn’t considered but that brought the MIM of Phoenix, AZ to mind. It wouldn’t disappoint as I went down the stairs into an apartment complex yard and in a secure door to an older man sitting at a desk and a younger man who would direct me to the left to pay my student entrance fee to another man. This museum started as a branch of another museum in 1975 and became independent in 1984. The MIM, largest of its kind, was opened in 2010 and focuses on the impact of music on the planet.

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The first hall consists mainly of animal skins and bones with wood in different configurations for string, wind, keyboard, and percussion instruments — panduri, gudastviri, tsiko-tsiko, and diplipito — local to this region. There is a picture of the Chavleishvilis’ circle dance with a group of men on one knee holding hands. Most of the displays don’t come with a description just a catalog number and title in Georgian.

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The second hall contains an Oriental (meaning Jews, Armenia, Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan, etc.) exhibition. I see stringed instruments inlaid with nacre (mother of pearl) on the handles, drums similar to the djembe variety of West Africa, and turntables for 3-inch vinyl records. The third hall is full of barrel organs, orchestrions, zithers, gramophones, accordions, and symphonions to name a few. The Europeans in the nineteenth century had a large impact on the instruments that would influence the culture of the country.

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In the middle of the self-guided museum tour, I’m able to look out the window and into the courtyard covered in what appears to be greenhouse roofing material. Back inside, I think about, better than being able to see within some of the larger instruments would have been having the opportunity to hear them, recorded or live. Instead, I’m left with Jailhouse Rock by Elvis on a 10-inch CRT TV which the US stopped making a decade ago but that China, Latin America, Africa, and Asia still find worthy of the low cost.

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I make it to the Narikala Fortress, built in the 4th century, and there is a sign overlooking the Baths District that tells of the dinner, theatre, and match-making of women in new dresses that took place in the warm comfort of the baths. I suppose, either way, undressed there or covered for a church, I wouldn’t be able to take pictures inside but there’s a nice panoramic view of the city below and the Saguramo Range in the distance.

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Next on the list, past the cats and birds (painted and real), is the Ateshgah Fire Temple from the Zoroastrians presence in the 5th to 7th centuries. I have no expectations but I only find a bunch of different-colored wooden staircases leading to locked doors after I climb the few brick stairs to what was conserved in 2007 — I’m not sure, but the QR scan tells me “a brick square type building with an almost ruined roof.” Well, I can appreciate this is the closest I will get to see the Mother of Georgia, from the knees up, erected in 1958 to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1500th year anniversary.

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I find my way back to a main road, past a man chopping wood, and stop for a maroon churchkhela (fruit paste dried around walnuts). The treat looks like a lumpy candle as it hangs on strings in a group. You choose the shade of red, yellow, or purple that you want and it gets cut and bagged, but I grabbed mine and separated the chewy and nutty goodness starting from one end as you could also start in the middle or cut it into sharable pieces.

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Catholic Cathedral

The first church that I can take pictures in today is the Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary, complete with an old candle-holder chandelier turned electric and a scene of the Baby Jesus cut into the top of a mural only decapitating a few of his disciples. There’s also a 3D version of the youthful savior on the floor with open arms lying between a pair of poinsettia plants.

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fountain, Pushkin Square

 

                                                             Museum of Fine Arts

Back outside, down the street, and into the daunting container called the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts. Inside is a large glass container — doors, walls, floors, and stairs — but a very typical museum counter to the right. I approach, pay my 15 lari, and scan my ticket at the gate to gain entrance to the exhibits — the first being “this is how it feels to walk on glass and wonder if you will fall through.” The feeling is different in the glass elevator that I will take to the next floor, but my mind starts to play with me as I can see the black-tiled floor below.

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I’m relieved to see men in a room with banana leaves reflecting off the shiny ground though I could see the artistic reason behind an entire glass-bottom museum it may play into others’ privacy, but that’s part of the excitement of exploring how other cultures create their societies and what aspects of their humanism they choose to enforce. I once told my dad that I wanted to go to college so I would have an easier time understanding the concepts at museums.

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That statement wasn’t a lie but it wasn’t the full reason either. I find that some art is better-left unknown, left to interpretation by the viewer, like international music without understanding the lyrics which can add a sad twist to a song that sounds upbeat. I don’t know now if it was the museum’s curation or if I was just drawn to mostly black-yellow and black-white images but there are so many techniques and themes being expressed of which mostly people and trees captured my attention.

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Georgian National Museum

The next place to grasp my senses is the Georgian National Museum. The first exhibit contains a few paintings, some over a century old, with descriptions beside them trying to explain the actions, and meanings thereof, of the humans or what the image lacks that creates uncertainty in the viewer and increases speculation to what the artist intended to represent in the details. With all that guesswork I’m ok imagining a different scenario, but I seem to do that in the actual world as well.

The next exhibit is a Roman collection from the Santarelli family that shows the beginnings of Greek statues being copied and displayed in the royal residences of popes and cardinals between the 14th and 18th centuries — the start of the Renaissance, the first public museum, and what would become archaeological science. What surprised me most was seeing the typical white marble heads atop beautiful porphyry busts (an igneous rock with crystals in a reddish groundmass).

People often ask how I feel traveling alone (without a man, without knowing the language, driving locally, etc.) and I always reassure them about how much I love it, not that I don’t have a limited other few that I also enjoy seeing new things and places with, but I’m ok doing them on my own as well, even if that means putting up with a weird guy in Sri Lanka and another in Georgia while walking between museums.

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Biltmore Hotel

I don’t know how I backtracked from the Fine Arts to the National Museum but I was unknowingly on my way to the MOMA when this guy decided to walk beside me. I would’ve been ok with his temporary company had he not felt the need to stare because he thinks I’m pretty. I appreciate the compliment and he wants to make small talk which I figure isn’t good for a museum and I’ve already seen two so I will wander into the Biltmore instead.

It’s a first for me because I rarely find myself dressed enough or nearby a hotel that charges a minimum of $180 a night unless there’s a sale and it’s my wedding anniversary or a night in Great Falls, MT. I’m enjoying the lights, decor, and warmth of the corridor and indoor pool (with curtained balconies that overlook it) when this guy gets the idea that he’s going to tell me how or where to spend my vacation and I abruptly tell him otherwise. I don’t care if he thinks security will escort him out because that’s what I had in mind.

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Christmas market clown

Just to make sure he’s gone his own way I step into the Smart Market, another public place with security, and take a picture of some tiered chocolate cups with dried fruits and nuts. The saleswoman goes to her display stash and begins to hand them to me and set some up for a posed-candy photo-op. I thought I would buy one but she was separate from the rest of the store that I wanted to explore and the guard let me know there would be no more photos inside.

I walked among the cabins at the Christmas market selling chocolate art, wooden trinkets, bottle bags, etc. and emptied the change out of my purse for a cup of glühwein that I carried with me as I moseyed into Stamba Hotel which appeared to be just an old factory turned sex lounge library at first. It’s actually an old Soviet printing house with a five-story atrium and two courtyards and guest rooms filled with more books, a reader’s paradise. If that wasn’t enough, the hotel also has a vertical garden and photo museum to highlight women photographers in the Southern Caucasus.

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Stamba Hotel

Dinner of rolled eggplant stuffed with walnut paste and covered in onion, pomegranate, and khmeli suneli (herb mix) will be at the Chaba’s Jazz Rock Cafe. I walk into the cozy establishment and sit at the end of the bar next to the 21″ TV displaying a well-lit brick-walled crackling fire while I look at the menu. I order the black bread hoping for a new carb experience, but it’s just regular delicious brown bread that will go great with my appetizer of a meal and a glass of dry red Saperavi wine from the Kakheti region.

I move to a table in the corner so I can take my coat off and listen to a guy explain to his friend about the similarities of languages and his journey of learning Spanish. This meal is embedding itself into my long-term memory and between my stomach lining as I check my pedometer for the explanation of tired legs and sore feet (no blisters is a win) and find that I climbed 56 floors (equivalent to about 1,000 stairs) in over 12 miles. I’ve hiked steeper mountains and walked in San Francisco but the elevation changes are more subtle here.

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I check on the car after a day of it being parked on a steep corner so close to someone’s gate and I’m glad I did. There is a note on the windshield that Google can’t translate (didn’t want to disturb the Dr if I didn’t have to). The sign on the door says cardiologist and that’s how the guy introduced himself after I knocked and he excused his dog from guard duty. He was going to get his son (perhaps my age) but I showed him the note and let him know I’d be gone in the morning and he agreed that was fine.

Back at the guesthouse and the manager for the night needs me to pay for my room. I told him what I paid last night and then he charged me that for two nights on my card (since I didn’t see the machine yesterday) and I will get 25 lari cash back at some point tonight. I agree and go into my room where the bed is made and fall into the mattress because one of the support beams had been dropped in the process.

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With a full tummy and my coat and boots off I could sleep but I will stay up another hour and a half to shower and plan for tomorrow. I have that feeling that it was me seeing Tbilisi but also that I saw nothing because it wasn’t me lucky enough to be experiencing another country. Usually, this feeling comes when I’m back home editing my notes and adding the pictures to the descriptions and getting to relive it all again so soon that it doesn’t seem real.

I’m in the shower when my guesthouse neighbor turns the lights off thinking she’s doing the opposite and quickly reverses her action. I’m surprised by the amount of pressure and hot water and want to set up a temporary residence here but I quickly smear soap around, grab my hair from the drain, and walk out wrapped in a towel past the lobby living room filled with men. I get my change back and there are coins for the 1s and 2s, like the loonies and toonies of Canada, which I prefer over the 10 and 20 cent pieces in filling my pocket.

My sister called while I was in the shower but instead of calling her back I will look at an unhelpful large paper map and use it as a notepad in realizing how all over the city the attractions are. They all open at 11 am and I wonder if I will see them all driving, let alone hiking like I had planned. Once my camera battery and watch are charged I can plug my phone into the one outlet (because I brought one adapter), set my alarm for my 9 am breakfast (included in the $8/night fee), and enjoy that it’s much quieter tonight outside and in.

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Gallivanting to Georgia

Zagros Mountains, Iran

For those that have been reading my blog, for years now, I feel like I don’t need to remind you how excited I get before a trip. This one would be no different. I set my alarm for 5:45, not for a wake-up alert but to let myself know after a night of popping off the pillow every half hour like it was time to go when I should actually get up to grab my bag and take an Uber to the airport since the safety situation here in Bahrain left my friend feeling cautious to be out on unnecessary travel according to the base who had just three days ago sent my husband out to sea to defend not only Americans in the region but the other nationalities that call this place home.

near Tbilisi Airport

Some spouses felt the need to leave and go to the safety of the United States and others panicked with this being their first and rough introduction to the custom of the Navy that is underway. I didn’t feel the same, as even though Caleb had less than twelve hours to get ready to deploy with another ship, this is his job and the military has kept their promise to provide three meals and a cot (whether healthy or comfy is up for debate) for the 16 years Caleb has served, so I left on my first visa run feeling sure that we would see each other in weeks.

What concerned me was the lack of communication that might follow. His first two deployments were email heavy with a phone call interspersed between the months but the longest separation left me receiving two calls daily. I didn’t think I was prepared to go without for so long, but the Navy had thought of that and the new crew was given email access within 24 hours of being onboard. Caleb and I would be able to share, me more than him, how we were doing.

St. George Statue, est. 2006

I get to see a bit of the beautiful Bahraini sunrise, from the corner of the backseat behind the high-rise buildings, that I’ve missed, just not enough to be awake for it or to step outside when I am. My driver is playing music and I wonder if it’s because I’m alone or because he’s not on the phone as having ridden with Caleb in the evenings the drivers feel fine answering the call on speakerphone to say they will call back when they have dropped us off or continuing a conversation they know we don’t understand.

I arrive at the airport in hiking boots and my Hello Kitty jacket with my face still puffy from the phone ringing on the wall, most likely for food delivery or a friend showing up to play video games with the guy below. I also forgot to flip my phone over so it lit up with a downloadable file from a Kenya number that is blocked so I could go back to closing my eyes and pretending to dream.

a house near Guest House Zemeli

The immigration agent asked for my name, a first, and then wished me a good flight. I didn’t realize how many times travel documents get checked as a precaution against travelers in a hurry getting on the wrong flight or other precarious issues that might arise. At the Bahrain airport there is a guard to ensure that only people with flights and one aide per disabled person continues towards the baggage wrapping machines and airline’s counters.

The airlines will check your passport if you’re checking a bag or don’t have an e-ticket. Another guard will check your boarding pass before the immigration agent checks your passport. Once in line for security, there is another agent checking both, and some airports don’t want you checking in too many hours early before a flight to limit congestion. I went through the scanner with a group of women in hijabs so the guy on the other side wasn’t concerned with the amount of shoes or jackets I had on, though they usually have a woman available.

a passageway, as seen from the sidewalk

I wasn’t able to get Georgian Lari at the Exchange on base so I went to BFG at the airport where there seemed to be more security checks in place, as is usually the case where high volumes of money are concerned. The company only had half the amount I planned on taking with me so I’m interested in what the conversion difference will be once I’m in country. I traded dollars, a scanned copy of my passport, and a signature for a small wad of 50 lari bills. I didn’t fully agree with the swap as I wish the transaction was more clear on the buying and selling value of the currencies being traded.

I forget that it’s winter in Bahrain and I was worried about looking out of place (which I usually do anyway) but many people have coats, gloves, scarves, and hats on — also a great way to get more carry-on without paying for the weight as my coat and camera add five pounds to my bag. I sit down near my gate and watch an Arabian toddler approach a Russian man with her little hand on his knee to get a look at his phone while he’s on a video call with his wife and baby.

pedestrian underpass

I’ve gotten to the airport too soon and I’m feeling sleepy so I grab a snack and some steps to stay awake until I’m on the plane. A woman asks me where the toilet is and I point towards the overhead sign as I try to remember the response to “shukran” as there are at least six ways to say “you’re welcome” in Arabic, “afwan” and “hala hala” being the most common. I’m the fourth one on the plane, not because of a rewards program or first-class seats but because with so many possible language barriers it’s difficult for the staff to keep people from skipping ahead anyway.

Opera and Ballet Theatre, est. 1851

The lady behind me almost grabs my face twice by slapping her fat hand onto my headrest while trying to find her seatbelt and get comfortable while the woman beside me is busy putting a seatbelt on her unbranded quilted blush backpack in the seat between us, only to have to put it under the seat like everyone else before take-off. This plane has screens available where I’m expecting to see the safety video displayed twice, once in the local language of the airline and again in English but this briefing will be brought to the passengers via a guy talking as fast as I do but in Arabic.

Kashveti St. George Orthodox Church, est. 1910

The three stewardesses are showing us how to blow ourselves to safety should the airplane experience (an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone) a water landing which minimizes the chances for recovery or recycling of the aircraft but might provide an artificial reef and food to the fish. These thoughts will follow me into my nap as we approach Dubai. I’m looking forward to Gulf Air increasing their direct flights to more Europian and Asian cities this summer so I can decrease the time spent on planes and in airports.

Orbeliani Square

I’m fourth in line again as I stand near a plastic-covered construction site for a flight with a delayed departure time of 30 minutes. The boarding process starts earlier when a bus is involved and I’m pulled aside to have my bag tagged for its large size. I begin pleading with the man because I know it fits in the overhead compartment and I don’t want to repack my bag for their harsh treatment. He puts the tag on and says it’s up to the flight crew. I thank him and join people on the bus with their three carry-ons and notice other bags getting tagged as well.

We arrive at the plane and a man tries to take my bag, but I assure him I’m allowed to bring it on board. The cart is filled with extra bags but still people are getting on the plane with two bags the size of mine, plus their purse, mini backpack, and duty free bags. One woman gets on with a hiking backpack that she could fit in and I don’t blame her for not wanting to part with her life’s belongings, but that could’ve been split between two bags for air travel. I’m grateful that some airlines are beginning to limit bag size and type to lessen their liability for damage and time spent fitting things into the overhead bins because people want to maximize their foot space.

Leaning Tower of Tbilisi, est. 2011

I try a trail mix Evolve plant-based protein bar (which could use only a third of the sugar and taste better) as I fly over the beautiful Zagros Mountain range in Iran. I put my tray table down in anticipation of food but I wasn’t on the pre-purchased meal list so I went to put it back up when I was offered a free veg fried noodle since there were ‘extra’, lucky me. My smart watch says we’re flying at 2,093 meters and though I can still see roads and buildings I know we’re closer to 10,900 meters otherwise we’d be crashing into the 9,800 – 14,922 ft tall snow-covered limestone and dolomite below.

I’m looking forward to the cold because my feet are getting sweaty in my boots, which next time I will either take off in-flight or pack flip flops to change into as there was enough room in my bag. Usually on descent I notice farm fields, industrial centers, major highways, or busy beaches but this landing had us passing tracts of trash and I wondered if they were natural or man-made collections. I hand the immigration officer my passport and she hands it back with a stamp in it and a small bottle of wine that says “gamarjoba”, which means “hello” in Georgian.

lamplighter statue

I am offered a taxi ten times before leaving the small departure area of the airport filled with just the necessities — rental car agencies, SIM card seller, currency exchange booth, and a restaurant — with drivers and police mingling in-between. I go to the Hertz counter and while I’m waiting on the guy to check on my license situation with my international permit I ask the next counter for water. The man asks what took me so long to ask as they saw me standing there a while but I was taking the place in — looking at the sign outside and the people walking up from a parking lot.

I’m ok to drive with my expired Florida license with military extension because I have the valid international permit that I will present with my passport if needed by the police. I chug another cup of water before attempting to get my first SIM card because Hertz doesn’t have a travel wifi and I forgot to ask about a GPS. The seller takes my phone and tries to unlock it using the airport’s wifi and then I seem to get some signal. I would be satisfied with dial-up as long as it got me to all the places on my list. I return the unusable card and exchange the rest of my dollars for lari (bills of 5, 10, and 20) and tetri (coins of 1 and 2 lari with 10, 20, and 50 tetri) which resemble the Euro coins.

Old City Wall

Back at Hertz, the guy grabs his clipboard and my suitcase to escort me to the rental lot. The 8*C feels amazing and I walk with my jacket open and no other winter accoutrements on even though I can see my breath. I told the guy I definitely packed too much but I’m hoping for snow so I should be fine. I don’t notice much about the bus on my left or the smokers to my right that we pass on our short walk but I do see the black dog sitting on the edge of the road with a yellow tag on his right ear and pause to appreciate the sky beside the airport as we arrive at my white BMW X1 4×4 which doesn’t seem to be very high clearance.

The car takes diesel and I will have two types to choose from at the pump. I pull over outside the airport for a nice picture before the road lines disappear and I follow behind a vehicle as cars merge knowingly even with oncoming traffic. I feel better once the lines return between old buildings and wintered trees. The view is constantly changing, as it usually does with any amount of movement, but the main theme on the road is buildings on, next to, and between mountains and suspended Christmas lights as I enter the busier downtown district.

statue of architect Shota Kavlashvili, est. 1999

I barely notice the sex music on the radio (sorry I don’t remember more details) as my senses are being pulled in all directions as I’m engaged like I knew I would be. The road goes from paved to smooth rocks turned on edge to provide traction for tires in inclement weather with a small concrete-like rough section between as a lane marker and footpath. I follow the signs for Guest House Zemeli as the street continues to climb and park as closely as I can next to a cardiologist’s gate (there’s a sign) to avoid being in the road, blocking the entrance, or hitting the light pole and walk up to the small wooden door with a large metal latch.

Once inside, past the glass case of toiletries for sale, there is a woman on the couch in a living room. I look up my reservation (that currently doesn’t exist) so I get to go through the motions of explaining that I would like one room with one bed to rest my soon-to-be tired head. She agrees and I pay her in cash for less than the discounted online price. I return to the car for my suitcase and can’t figure out how to lock the vehicle. There’s a button to push to shift between R and D on the side of the gear shift and another button on top to park. Then I push the on/off button and push the key fob in to release it.

fresh bouquet from the Flower Pavilion

The fob has a key that comes out with an unlock button for the doors and a separate one for the trunk which doesn’t seem to open on its own. I walk down to the main street after putting my bag in the room and my coat on as I figured the temperature would drop when the sun did. I turn left on Merab Kostava St and point to a closed khachapuri (cheese in bread) through the bakery window. I walk with a smile on my face as I take in the Christmas lights, cold cigarette smoke smell, the loose tiles underfoot, the half warm bread in my hands, and the holiday music that I can understand.

hearts in Orbeliani Square

I finish my meal quickly when I see the pomegranate juicer and get the medium size cup to chug down before I slosh it from the rim or someone bumps into me. This country, so far, makes me think of the Soviet Union, London, Singapore, New Jersey… and I’m sure this is where the ideas got started for the modern cities. My walk to the Clock Tower was a bit rushed so that I could make the 7 o’clock show or otherwise I can return at noon tomorrow. I was still able to take photos of goods being sold on steps, graffiti in the pedestrian underpass, benches and statues, and a black kitty too.

stone arches inside Kashveti St. George Church

The show starts as I walk up and find a spot amongst the crowd with their faces and phones tilted towards the top of the tower as an angelic puppet comes out to ring the bell as the “Circle of Life”, from boy meets girl to marriage, birth, and death plays out and is just as quickly over and the mass of people disperse. The Leaning Tower of Tbilisi and the marionette theatre that it’s attached to have more history and meaning than can be attained in this sneak peek into the life’s work of Rezo Gabriadze.

St. George and the Dragon

I begin my walk back towards the guesthouse and have more time to take in the well-lit under street passages that are covered in art and filled with shops selling wine, panties, fruits, and trinkets. I try some eggnog at one of the many Christmas markets, booths selling mostly hot wine and sweets. There are plenty of statues, some permanent and others adorned with lights, for the passersby photo opportunity. There’s a large fresh flower market, an open playground, a pop-up ice rink, and a metal trash can with fire lighting up the stars cut into the side.

painting above the sanctuary

The Kashveti St. George Orthodox Church is beautiful inside and out. Women are covering their hair (except for one who looks like she threw a dish towel over her head) and men giving the sign of the cross upon exit. I put my coat hood on and go in. There is no place to sit and everyone is placing an 8-inch candle, thinner than a pen, to melt under the image displaying a lord, mother, or disciple of their choosing and allowing the wax to drop on the floor as the candle is placed on a tray of its peers.

the sanctuary

I can’t tell in what order, but people are praying and kissing the cases containing images and taking their blessings from the objects in the room within reach. Some images have more gold and others are bejeweled with a description below in Georgian. Some of the wooden frames and furniture are ornately designed. The dress code sign on the side door says no flash photography and no pants for women. I’m on my way out and hold the door for a kid. His dad will give me a grateful smile and a nod.

images of Jesus

I was going to write some notes on my phone while I stood taking in the grey stone of the church contrasting with golden pictures inside and yellow street lights outside when Caleb called. We both had terrible service but I think he was able to make out that I had found a room for the night and was having an amazing time. Caleb had made a new friend to keep him company, which was good since he didn’t have a job onboard. He still wasn’t able to tell me if he would stay out to sea or return home via ship or plane according to the Navy’s plans, but it was great to hear his voice.

the bell tower

I’d spend the next hour or so getting back to the room as I pause to enter a shop and get one photo before a man comes over and turns on his language Rolodex — “ara” I don’t understand, but I know that “нет” means no more pictures. I release a long “aww” to let him know I get the message that drinks don’t like my camera. I thought about sneaking a photo of the snacks but figure I will have other shops and opportunities while I’m here. I pass the room and climb some stairs in the dark for a look over the city and the Biltmore, attached to the IMELI building which was erected in the 1930s, dominates the skyline with a 32-floor glass skyscraper that opened in 2016.

The Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute served the Georgian government from 1991 to 2007 and was partly demolished by a team that was turning it into a hotel until another group came along and spent $140 million on its preservation and additional 300-meter high hotel tower. This building combination is a great example of the country as a whole. A lot of the buildings would be condemned in the States for their broken appearance, but here they are saved to tell a story… and probably a lack of government funding to improve the situation.

My room is the first one to the right once you enter the main door and I try to enter quietly and have a look around but the fireworks outside, done before I can capture evidence, grabs the attention of the night attendant who asks if I’m German and then Russian with me saying no in both languages respectively. I tell her I speak English from America and she says her Georgian is from here. I’m grateful to the societies that understand the significance of learning another language to connect cultures without a sense of losing their identity.

I plug in the space heater and turn it on to create a barrier between the window and the bed. I hang my coat up next to the mirror and exchange clothes from my body and suitcase. I sit on the bed to plug my phone in via adapter and wish I had a match to light my bedside candle though I won’t need it with the lights flashing in through the blinds and performing a dance show on the wall. There’s also one glass there and that might be for my welcome drink but I’m ready to lay my head down on the bird sleeping in my pillow, the densest pile of covered feathers ever.

I unfold the origami sheet as it continues to grow from a neat folded napkin into a behemoth of warmth blanket that will envelop me and the mattress. I’m taking in the day and imagining tomorrow as other guests are still arriving with their text alerts and chatter that can be heard through the door. Nothing that can’t be fixed by being tired enough to roll over and go to sleep.

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